The following are excerpts from stories written for the Hendersonville Times-News:
A group of men sat around the hearth at the Bat Cave Volunteer Fire and Rescue one December evening, swapping stories and telling jokes with the ease of guys who’ve done this many times before.
There’s “Red” Anderson, the former Bat Cave fire chief, and J.C. Huntley, who helped build the firehouse back in the 1970s. Anderson and Huntley admitted they can’t hold a candle to the gentleman who was sitting beside them, his eyes twinkling in the firelight.
Oscar Avery was the only African-American member of Bat Cave’s department, and was the oldest active firefighter in Henderson County. Avery extinguished burning homes, cut open tree-blocked roads and given first aid to injured motorists for more than 30 years.
Avery and Huntley knew each other as kids, though Avery was quick to point out Huntley was several years his junior.
“He was real small when I ran into him,” Avery said.
Huntley attended the local grade school, Avery wasn’t able to because of segregation.
“I never got to go to school, period,” he said.
When he was old enough, Avery began working in the county’s apple orchards, packing houses — “anywhere I could find a job.” Later, he developed his own orchard.
Bat Cave was a tiny hamlet in those days.
“There was just a few houses here and yonder,” he said. “Nothing like we have now.”
In 1974, Bat Cave didn’t have its own fire station. Avery, Anderson, and Huntley — along with other members of community — met at the Bat Cave Baptist Church to discuss changing that. The group took up a collection and raised $2,000, enough to construct a home-grown fire truck.
“We went over to Fairview and bought a long truck chassis,” Anderson said. “Henderson Oil Company gave us an old oil tank. We put a pump on it.”
“We’d work a job during the day and worked on the trucks at night,” Avery said.
Besides building some trucks from scratch, the fledgling department bought a fire truck from the Blue Ridge Fire Department and another from the South Boston Fire Department in Virginia.
With the help of the Bat Cave Community Association and some FHA loans, the new fire crew built a two-bay firehouse on U.S. 74. The location proved to be advantageous.
“All of the trucks ran along 74 in those days, and we had a Trailways bus station in Bat Cave with four scheduled runs through here,” Anderson said. “We had a lot of accidents.”
Avery remembers working more vehicle accidents in the early days than house fires.
“We didn’t have a whole lot [of structure fires] when we first started out, but later on, people got to building and it picked up,” he said.
He recalls when the department responded to a two-story blaze in Lake Lure around Christmas one year.
“The water froze while we were spraying it,” he said.
Avery says racial discrimination has never been an issue.
“I pretty much was treated like the other firefighters,” he said. “Red didn’t put up with that kind of stuff. If you didn’t do what you was supposed to, you were on the road.”
Though he never learned to read or write, Avery was a quick study. He learned CPR and advanced first aid by watching, listening and practicing. He also sat through the intensive Emergency Medical Technician course, picking up what he could without the benefit of written materials.
As the fire crackled and firefighters loaded up their plates with barbeque, the three old friends reminisced about rescue calls from years past: a tractor trailer full of Chek drinks that overturned, another truck wreck that spilled eggs all over the highway, extinguishing a fire at a woodcarver’s place and one particularly memorable auto accident.
“The car came down Highway 9, hit a power pole and the transformer blew,” Anderson said. “It put the lights out. There were two guys in there, and a woman with no clothes on. We covered her up.”
Another early leader of the fire department was Ulys L. Ruff.
Ruff was a well-known leader and business owner in Bat Cave and a founding member of the fire department.
Ruff owned a combination store and garage on U.S. 74A for many years.
“He was a very close friend of mine,” Anderson said. “He had his business on the right side of 74A, a country store and garage, and my business was directly across the road on 9/74. We were competitors, but close friends.”
When the Valley Clinic and Hospital was operating, Ruff and Anderson volunteered as the ambulance drivers.
“In ’74, we saw a need for a fire department here in Bat Cave,” Anderson said.
They led the community effort to organize the department and Ruff was the assistant chief for 25 years.
“He drove the ambulance along with the fire trucks,” Anderson said.
“He liked antiques and antique cars, and he had an old card collection of postcards of the area,” he said. “He knew what each one was about and he had old pictures of the gorge.”